Man vs. God
I’m not sure exactly what use there is in placing these two authors together. They’re mostly focusing on separate issues. I suppose it’s helpful just to demonstrate the distance between two views. Both Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins are criticizing literalist religion. The difference is that Dawkins also dismisses non-literalist religion.
I’m in favor of Karen Armstrong’s position as she has a better grasp of history and societal development. She seems to comprehend what the real issue is. However, Richard Dawkins does have a point. Literalism is still a popular view, but the even more fundamental point is that it’s ever becoming less popular. Polls show that traditional religion is waning and alternative interpretations of spirituality are increasing.
It’s true that it might take a while for literalism to become a minority position especially in the US. Even so, Karen Armstrong has written about how fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity. Both scientific materialism and fundamentalism both tend towards literalism, seeing all of the world through one lense. Armstrong is suggesting that multiple perspectives will give more understanding.
She points out how the symbolic view of the divine is very old, older than Christianity. Many of the earliest Christians were influenced by the allegorical interpretations of the Greeks and the Alexandrian Jews, and these early Christians often discounted literalist interpretations of the Old Testament. It’s only in recent centuries that biblical literalism took its cue from science and became widely popular. The debate about the historical nature of Jesus is more of an issue today than it ever was at the earliest decades of Christianity.
Dawkins bring up a very important point in his last paragraph, but he betrays a lack of comprehension of the subject. It seems to me that Armstrong’s view simply goes over his head. Yes, literalism is popular. So? Why does he want to make all people open to religion and spirituality the enemy of his ideological vision of scientific humanism? His view even seems to discount the value of openminded agnosticism. You’re either with him or you’re against him… pick a side or else become irrelevant (and lonely). He is correct that many people don’t understand the views of sophisticated theologians such as Armstrong (himself included), but that doesn’t make such views any less important. It’s lonely to speak against popular opinion. However, that was just as much true for atheistic scientists in centuries past. Popular opinion is always changing.
The problem with trying to compare these two authors is that you need a larger context to judge by. There are two many issues and too much background info that need to be understood in detail: Axial Age religions, Hellenistic influences on Judeo-Christianity, logos and mythos, literalism and allegory, modernism and postmodernism, etc. There are these large trends of history that we’re all caught in and it’s hard to see outside of our situation. This is a very old discussion. The debate between literalism and allegory, for example, has come up again and again throughout history. There was a major debate about it in the 19th century, but then was almost entirely forgotten about again in the twentieth century. This debate has been become active again, but the situation is different. The literalism of both scientists and fundamentalists is a viewpoint of modernism. Despite the influence modernist thought has on the world, we are slowly developing towards a new paradigm of understanding.
To understand what is emerging from this cultural conflict, I’d suggest turning to some other ideas. Personally, I find Ken Wilber’s integral theory helpful and also Beck and Cowan’s Spiral Dynamics. But there are many models that are helpful. What Dawkins misses is the human element. He is idealizing objectivity, but humans are inevitably mired in subjectivity. If you want to understand why humans believe what they do, you need to understand human nature. Studying psychology always adds some insight. To specifically understand the shift society is dealing with at the moment, I think the study of generations is even more important. Polls show that they younger generations have a very different view of religon. It’s obvious that we should look to the opinions and attitudes of the young if we want to see where the world is heading. The youth are less traditionally religious, but interestingly this doesn’t equate to them being non-spiritual. So, it would seem that the youth are leaning more towards Armstrong’s view. But time will tell.